Katherine Zappone: Twelve-week period is right way to respect women
Protected period for abortion is the proper way to tell women: ‘We trust you’
Thousands of women in Ireland have abortions every year. Those who can afford it, who can travel or can import pills, can and do access abortion in Ireland. Under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution it is the poor, the young, the sick and the disabled who cannot access abortion care.
I do not believe it is just that someone should become a parent because they cannot afford an abortion. I do not accept that this contributes to the common good. Instead, what we need is to make lawful abortion available in Ireland as part of a larger project of reproductive justice that supports parenting, values sexual life as based on consent, joy and pleasure, and recognises that women are ethical agents entitled to author our lives.
No two decisions to have an abortion are the same. What they have in common is the fact that women have taken complex ethical decisions to bring their pregnancy to an end. They have thought about the potential impact of another child on the relationships in which they are embedded: on the child they are already raising who needs extra support, on the husband they love who has severe mental illness, on the parent they are caring for in older age, on the children they hope to have in the future.
Every decision about reproductive life – whether to continue or end a pregnancy – is an ethical decision, taken with care and treated with seriousness.
As legislators our job is to bring to the Oireachtas the demands and the needs of the people we serve, and all over the country women tell me that what they need is for the law to respect the decisions that they make about their own reproductive lives.
A 12-week protected period will achieve that. Let me be clear: a protected period during which someone can access abortion without having to justify her decision is the only humane and kind way to support victims of rape who seek to bring a pregnancy to an end. The alternative – of people assessing how credible the claim is, of women having to recount and relive their experience of rape – is too unjust to contemplate. We cannot impose that on women who have already been denied the right to decide what happens to their bodies. If we do, women will continue to suffer, to travel, and to import pills. They will not subject themselves to such an unjust law, and nor should they.
But a 12-week protected period is also the right way to respect those ethical decisions that women make every day: to say to them: “We trust you.” To recognise that women are people with families, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, and children. As such, we are entitled to more than the constitutional right not to die during pregnancy. Our families and loved ones are entitled to more than that for us too. Women are already accessing abortion in the first trimester, but they are doing it alone, in bedrooms or alone abroad. If we allow that to continue we are punishing women for making ethical decisions, reinforcing stigma and imposing shame.
However, we can and should also support the preservation of foetal life. Without question the best way to do this is to support parenting, provide contraception and mandate sexual education. My department is making unprecedented investments that I hope will make parenting possible for more people who wish it. That is how we will reach the situation I believe we all want: where there are as few as possible unwanted pregnancies and as few as possible unwanted abortions. I want an Ireland where nobody brings a wanted pregnancy to an end because they believe they cannot afford to parent.
The law that would follow repeal of the amendment will also aim to preserve foetal life. As pregnancy progresses, access to abortion will become more restrictive: after 12 weeks it will be available on grounds of health, risk to life or fatal foetal anomaly. As is the case everywhere, late abortion will be rare, and almost always the product of achingly difficult circumstances.
It is not right to say that without the Eighth Amendment the Oireachtas will be prevented from regulating abortion in this way. The Oireachtas will be entitled to restrict access to abortion provided those restrictions are proportionate taking pregnant women’s rights into account. Countries all over the world achieve this: they impose time limits, or allow access to abortion only on “grounds” in later pregnancy. The same model is proposed for Ireland: a model in which we aim to pursue the legitimate interest we all share in the preservation of foetal life, not through the force of the Eighth Amendment but through the support of voluntary and consensual pregnancy.
Dr Katherine Zappone is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs